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And The Coveted Brown Jug Award Goes to...Drew Smith

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James Reams and Drew SmithThe Park Slope Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Jamboree’s Brown Jug Award is the brainchild of James Reams, a bluegrass musician and bandleader for over 20 years, who conceived of it as a way to recognize people in the Northeast whose impact on the music deserved to be honored but who might be less likely to be recognized by national organizations since for some of them, their impact was regional in nature.

This year the Jamboree is pleased to honor long-standing supporter and performer, Drew Smith, for his contributions to bluegrass with the coveted Brown Jug Award. An Autoharp Aficionado Extraordinaire, Drew Smith is probably one of the best known autoharpists in the nation as well as “across the pond”. In the 40 plus years that he has been playing the autoharp, Drew has won championship after championship across the US and was inducted into the Autoharp Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2011, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the California Autoharp Gathering. But we’re sure that the Brown Jug Award represents the ultimate feather in his cap!

A veteran performer, instructor, and workshop leader, Drew has developed a unique thumb lead style of playing that allows him to capture melody notes of fast fiddle tunes on his autoharp. He loves to play the chromatic autoharp, because it gives him the needed notes and chords to be able to play a wider selection of music than a diatonic harp. You may be wondering just how many varieties of music can be played on an autoharp. Well, Drew has definitely put his instrument to the test as he performs Dixieland, Blues, Tin Pan Alley, Country, Russian Tangos, Calypso, Broadway Show tunes and ethnic music...in addition to our favorite old-time and bluegrass tunes. He says no matter where it comes from, if you like it, why not play it!

Drew first picked up the autoharp in 1967 after being influenced by Grand Masters Kilby Snow and Mike Seeger. He reminisced about his first encounter with the autoharp, “At first it was just plain confusing. Then after one lesson, I figured it out. The rest is all self taught.” Now that’s an understatement, the rest is history! But why the autoharp instead of any of the other, more popular instruments? He says it’s because he can express himself better and play more kinds of music on the autoharp than any of the other instruments. Once he figured out how to play melody notes, he could jam with anyone!

Though the autoharp may be considered a child’s toy by many, Drew says that “it becomes a completely different instrument in the hands of those who consider it has no limitations.” One of his favorite things to do is to get together with musicians that he has never played with before and see how it works out. Learning new material, regardless of its origins, keeps it fresh and thrilling. Since Drew plays by ear, he says he learns from everyone. And, no doubt, they learn from him too.

For 27 years, Drew performed with Roger Sprung and the Progressive Bluegrassers at such notable venues as the Lincoln Center and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. In 2013, he performed in and taught at the Sore Fingers Festival in Oxfordshire, England. Drew has recorded three CDs that help form the backbone of any autoharp enthusiasts library including “Now That’s Autoharp!”, “The Art of the Autoharp” and “Having a Ball” with the Triple Play All-Stars.

Combined with all of his awards, that’s quite a history! When asked about the future for autoharpists, Drew commented “When you play and sing Carter Family music and other groups from that era, the autoharp fits in extremely well. When you consider where old-time music has developed today, the autoharp player must think carefully about whether the sounds of the autoharp will take away from the overall group string band sound. Sometimes less is more.”

Well, the Jamboree family can’t get enough of Drew Smith and is thrilled to add him to the illustrious list of Brown Jug recipients. We hope to have him perform at many more of our events in the years to come.

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